EU must not "ignore" allegations of financing human rights violations, says Ombudsman

The European Ombudsman has today called on the European Commission to improve “respect for human rights” in the use of billions of Euros of money provided to European governments and to “dissuade [EU] Member States, and indeed itself, from ignoring violations of fundamental rights”.  The statement comes at the end of a year-long inquiry by the Ombudsman into monitoring, control and management of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESI Funds), the single largest funding stream administered by the European Commission, and to which MDAC was asked to contribute.

Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman

ESI Funds are provided to EU governments to improve cohesion and to reduce disparities between different regions. Funding is commonly used by governments on major infrastructure projects, education and skills development, and a number of related social purposes. In recent years, however, a growing number of reports have surfaced that governments have used the Funds to perpetuate human rights violations, including policies which result in the segregation of tens of thousands of people with disabilities in institutions. This is despite obligations under international law requiring governments to undertake ‘deinstitutionalisation’ programmes and ensure that people with disabilities are supported to live independently in their communities (Article 19, UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).

In Romania, research undertaken by the Bucharest-based Institute of Public Policy showed that over 24 million Euro was used to refurbish and build new institutions, affecting an estimated 18,000 people with disabilities. Figures from Hungary show that 12 million Euros in ESI Funds were used to build new institutions, rather than ensuring that 700 people with disabilities were provided with community housing and support services. Comprehensive figures from across the EU, however, are not centrally collected or published by the Commission.

The Ombudsman stated that there was “citizen discontent” at allegations that the funds have been linked to institutions where there have been “recurring abuses and ill-treatment”. In Romania, for example, broadcaster Al Jazeera reported that 500,000 Euro was provided to a residential social care institution where residents had been subjected to abuse, forced labour and sexual violence.

Oliver Lewis, MDAC Executive Director said: "Structural Funds have the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in Europe. Yet, increasing evidence is emerging that millions of Euros have instead been used by governments to segregate and institutionalise thousands of people. The European Commission should immediately act to ensure more robust monitoring and control of the funds, and take enforcement action against governments that continue to misuse European money even today."

The EU Ombudsman noted that human rights compliance is a key aspect of partnership agreements between the EU and external countries, but that this was given much lower priority in partnership agreements with EU Member States. Ms. O'Reilly pointed out that there continued to be the risk that victims of human rights violations would have no effective mechanisms of redress available to them in the new 2014-2020 'cohesion policy' funding period, "in much the same way as ineffective redress mechanisms have existed during the previous funding periods."

MDAC provided a detailed submission to the Ombudsman, alongside a number of other civil society organisations, and pointed out that the lack of control over previous funding is still affecting thousands of people today. In Hungary, MDAC has collected evidence that new institutions continue to be built despite new conditions on governments benefiting from ESI Funds.

"The findings of the Ombudsman show that the European Commission lacks robust mechanisms to prevent EU money being used to finance human rights violations," said MDAC Campaigns Director Steven Allen. "Tens of thousands of people with disabilities have already been affected, and continue to be do. Many of them will continue to live in EU-financed institutions for years to come unless concrete action is taken by the Commission. The EC must now publicly recognise the harm done and make amends to those affected."

The inquiry of the Ombudsman was limited to the 2014-2020 period of financing under the EU's cohesion policy framework. MDAC continues to call for a broader inquiry to ascertain the effects of the previous financing period, particularly since the EU's confirmation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and which now forms a key plank of EU law. In particular, MDAC renews its call to the European Commission to identify people with disabilities affected by the misuse of structural funds and commit to a process of providing reparations.

Eight "guidelines" are set out by the Ombudsman to the EC in order to improve the current monitoring and control of ESI Funds, including:

  1. Ensuring strict compliance with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights by Member States when implementing EU law;
  2. Raising awareness that ESI Funds constitute implementation of EU law;
  3. Ensuring compliance with fundamental rights from the outset, rather than waiting for allegations of violations to surface;
  4. Including assessments on the extent to which ESI Funds have improved respect for fundamental rights in formal evaluation processes;
  5. Strengthening management and control systems over Member States, in particular their handling of complaints about misuse of ESI Funds;
  6. Sanctioning those governments that fail to take action to comply with "ex-ante" conditionalities;
  7. Initiating infringement proceedings against those Member States which violate fundamental rights when administering the Funds; and
  8. Strengthening the involvement of civil society in monitoring the use of funding, and being more transparent about monitoring that takes place.

The misuse of ESI Funds is likely to feature as a key issue in an upcoming review of the European Union before the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities later this year. The Committe, which is responsible for assessing implementation of the CRPD, will be undertaking the first ever assessment of a regional body such as the EU for implementing international human rights law. The Committee has already asked the EU to explain how ESI Funds have been used to "ensure, protect and promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their local communities." You can read MDAC's submission to the CRPD Committee here.

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